Pregnancy and childbirth exact an enormous toll on a woman’s body. It is transforming and beautiful, but when a mother does not get the physical and emotional support she needs, the effects can be devastating.
I am also a physical therapist, myself, and feel that every woman should know her rights to receive physical therapy as a new mother. One of the many fields of specialization in physical therapy is women’s health. I bet you didn’t know that. That’s okay. Most doctors don’t either.
A physical therapist (PT) in women’s health is dedicated to helping women get their bodies back after birth. They can treat a myriad of issues, including pelvic and back pain, incontinence, and other ailments. The American Physical Therapy Association’s 2010-11 report titled Today’s Physical Therapist: A Comprehensive Review of a 21st-Century Health Care Profession, states “physical therapists are committed to facilitating each individual’s achievement of goals for function, health, and wellness.” The core values of a physical therapist are “altruism, accountability, integrity, clinical excellence, social responsibility, and compassion.”
The sad fact, though, is that most new mothers will never get the therapy they desperately need after giving birth.
But I am passionate about turning the tide. All too often, women in general, not just new mothers, do not receive the health care they need. Read my article which reviews the shocking statistics about the crisis in women’s health care today in the US.
A Prime Example of Falling Through the (Medical) Cracks
I have had patients and friends who have suffered from pelvic pain, sexual dysfunction, painful scarring, chronic incontinence, and lower back pain for so long that it has severely altered their quality and enjoyment of life.
A friend recently came to me asking for advice for another girlfriend. Let’s say her name is Teresa. Teresa had just undergone major abdominal surgery (think C-section) and was having awful abdominal pains and even headaches.
Knowing that the two are related, based on her surgery type and plan of care, I immediately asked if the surgeon had referred her to physical therapy. Of course the answer was no. Her plan of care did not include any post-operative physical therapy. In fact, when I asked Teresa directly, she said her doctor (a woman, mind you) had never even mentioned needing physical therapy.
I was upset by what I felt was an oversight by the physician to refer Teresa to therapy, but mostly I felt a surge of urgency to help her. This woman needed therapy immediately, yesterday, even. She was floundering, depressed, in pain, and alone at home six weeks after major surgery on her reproductive organs due to a cancer scare. She had no idea how to get better (she had been a marathoner) now that she had this huge scar (larger than that of a C-section) across her abdomen. Even coughing caused pain, and the related headaches and back pain were terrifying.
But, it was not the doctor’s fault. Not really.
Doctors are educated very little, if at all, about PT services in medical school. A good friend with an MD sister said this when asked if she had learned about PT in medical school: “sure, we had education about what PT’s do in medical school. It was a single lecture, on one day, it was optional, and it covered all allied health care services.”
Physical therapists spend a similar amount of time in earning their degree in physical therapy (7-8 years) as doctors do in medical training. There really is no way a single optional lecture in medical school can prepare physicians to know what PT’s do and how to refer for physical therapy.
The Take Home Message
Be your own advocate in health care. Before going into surgery or giving birth, educate yourself about what to expect and what you will need for your body to heal fully.
The biggest mistake a mother can make in seeking maternity care is assuming her doctor knows best. The doctor may not even know PT’s treat women’s health issues, much less how to refer to PT for prenatal or postpartum rehabilitation.
There is good news though. Here are the tools you need to get physical therapy after giving birth:
First, BEFORE you give birth, ask your doctor is he/she refers to physical therapy after giving birth. If you already have low back or pelvic pain during pregnancy, then you should get a referral for physical therapy now. Do not wait until after giving birth.
When asked why you need it (physical therapy), you can give them these four reasons: click here to read more
Ms. Garner is an educator, integrative physical therapist, and founder of Professional Yoga Therapy Studies, an organization that creates inter-disciplinary curricula and educational competencies for using yoga in medicine and rehabilitation. Ms. Garner received her Master of Physical Therapy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she completed studies in the School of Medicine and School of Public Health. Ms. Garner began working in the field of integrative therapies in 1995, after becoming licensed in sports medicine. Her clinical specialties include public health education, orthopaedics, and pain management, with a focus on maternal health.
Ms. Garner has been writing, teaching, and lecturing for hospitals and medical practices throughout the US since 2000, and in 2012 she joined the Caring Economics Coalition and the work of Dr. Riane Eisler, who she credits as one of her greatest mentors. Ms. Garner now consults pro bono with medical schools at several domestic and international universities in order to develop integrative medicine curriculum in medical therapeutic yoga. She is currently an instructor with Medbridge Education and consultant at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Misericordia University’s Doctoral Physical Therapy program, and the University of Saskatchawan School of Medicine. These evidence-based programs are a first of their kind in North America.
Ms. Garner considers her most important work to be in maternal health care advocacy and health care policy, where through her multi-media platforms she works to increase awareness of, and eliminate barriers to, receiving holistic and integrative health care. Ginger is a mother of three children, and lives with her husband and rowdy sons on a small island off the east coast of the US. Ginger can be contacted at www.gingergarner.com and www.professionalyogatherapy.org.